Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching The Children of Willesden Lane
Resources to help you teach the book in middle schools and high schools


Classroom Video:
Introducing the “Universe of Obligation”
(Middle School)

What prompts some people to help others in a time of crisis, while other people turn away? This question is central to an understanding of The Children of Willesden Lane. Teachers can explore this question with their students by using the concept of a Universe of Obligation. Sociologist Helen Fein defines the Universe of Obligation as the individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.”1 Throughout their reading of the book, students who have thought about their own Universe of Obligation will more easily see a connection between their own lives and choices and the events in the story. Ideas for introducing the Universe of Obligation are on pages 14–15 of the curriculum guide.

In the video, we see Sheila Huntley preparing her sixth-grade social studies students to read The Children of Willesden Lane. Prior to this session Sheila has given students background on the Holocaust, the Jewish faith, and race, prejudice, and discrimination.

  • Sheila reviews key vocabulary with her students, distinguishing between “outsider” and “outcast.”
  • She reads aloud an essay by high school student Eve Shalen about the routine mocking of peers who are “different.” Students respond in writing and aloud. (This essay is found on pages 14–15 of the curriculum guide.)
  • Sheila asks students to create their own Universe of Obligation on a handout sheet and to compare how they feel about those near the center of their universe—family and friends—with how they feel about those who lie outside that universe.

Questions for Reflection

  • As a teaching tool, how is the concept of a Universe of Obligation similar to and different from the notion of “responsibility toward others”?
  • What is the value of having students draw their own Universe of Obligation and talk about why they put some people inside and others outside?

1. Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide, Free Press, 1979, p. 4.

Sheila Huntley presents the book to her class


Teacher: Sheila Huntley
Grade: 6
Subject: Social studies
Location: Memphis, TN

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